Prohibition and pugilists |

Prohibition and pugilists

The Red Onion in the 1950s. (Willoughby collection)

Starting a restaurant today is challenging and risky, but owning one in early-1900s Aspen resembled masochism. Tim Kelleher, my uncle’s father, bought the building we now know as The Red Onion. A saloon was usually a profitable business, but Kelleher’s ownership ran through the Prohibition years. Aspen’s largest mines cut their work forces during his ownership, the town’s population fell and, as if that was not enough, the influenza pandemic attacked the restaurant’s primary patrons ” young adult males.

Tim Kelleher immigrated from County Cork, Ireland. Like many immigrants, he was torn between loyalty to family and the lure of a better life in America. His mother told him not to come back if he left. Once he arrived in America he followed the late-19th-century immigrant trail to the Midwest iron and coal mines and thence to western mining towns.

Tim Kelleher married Mary Ann Connors in 1906. The Connorses owned the original saloon, and Mary Ann’s mother was blind. When the senior Connors faced increasing challenges, Tim and Mary Ann bought the saloon with the understanding that Mrs. Connors would continue living on the second floor. The ground floor became Kelleher’s Kitchen.

My uncle remembered that when he and his brother would slide down the stair railings there, Mrs. Connors could tell which of them was sliding. He also remembered playing billiards on the second floor. The billiard tables gathered dust because they were excluded from the restaurant business.

The business struggled. Many patrons ate “on the tab,” paying when they could, which wasn’t often enough. Restaurants and bachelor miners traditionally enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. So long as miners scratched out payable ore, restaurants remained open. Unfortunately, silver prices dropped throughout the life of the Kelleher Kitchen. Eventually the Lincoln Water Diversion Tunnel project employed the miners, who then frequented Aspen on weekends.

Tim Kelleher was a fervent boxing fan. He never entered the ring, but like others his age he attended many prizefights. Aspen hosted many fights, as did most western mining towns where a fighter would come to town and dare anyone who entered the ring, winner take all. Boxing and baseball were the most popular spectator sports. Fans followed their favorites in the papers and would even travel by train to bigger cities to see major contests.

Jack Dempsey, born in the San Luis Valley, fought in Colorado towns from 1911 to 1916. He fought in Aspen as “Kid Blackie.” In 1919 Dempsey beat Jess Willard for the national heavyweight title. That lopsided victory, combined with the name of his hometown, resulted in a new nickname: “Manassa Mauler”.

Tim Kelleher’s boxing passion was certainly once fueled by Dempsey’s career. The prizefighter photo collection that surrounded The Red Onion bar was a testament to that passion.

When Scott DeGraff reopens The Red Onion, he promises to “pay homage to the past.” The Victorian imprinted-metal high ceiling and tall dark wood and mirror bar deserve homage. The barroom dimensions, confined by the historically long and narrow Aspen business lots, also speak of the past. The very soul of the establishment derives from the prizefighters of the early decades of the last century, the ghosts of Kelleher’s Kitchen.

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